ST. LOUIS -- A five-win homestand that propelled the Cardinals into the National League Central's top spot concluded with a thud on a night that Adam Wainwright would rather soon forget.
The anticipation of a potential series sweep over division-rival Cincinnati enjoyed minimal shelf life. Buried by a six-run first, Wainwright turned in the worst start of his career. The quick start allowed the Reds to coast to a 10-0 win in a game that turned chaotic enough for manager Mike Matheny to end it with his best defensive infielder playing the outfield.
Indeed, it was all about the unprecedented on Wednesday.
"You just have to throw it away," Wainwright said. "You'd like to say there's something to learn in every game. Today is just something I'm going to forget about and go back to pitching."
A crowd of 35,698 showed up at Busch Stadium to see what Wainwright had as an encore to his complete-game effort last Friday. Those who stayed for the game's entirety ended up witnessing the team's worst loss of the season.
The Reds pulled back within 3 1/2 games of the Cards in the NL Central, while the Pirates crept to within a half-game as they defeated Milwaukee. Pittsburgh plays the Brewers again on Thursday before the Cardinals' Friday arrival.
The Reds sent 10 batters to the plate in the first inning, plating six runs on as many hits. The bases were loaded by the time cleanup hitter Jay Bruce stepped up, and the right fielder initiated the scoring with a two-run single. Ryan Ludwick's double pushed home another, as did Todd Frazier's groundout.
Allen Craig's inability to get an out on a grounder to him at first extended the inning so that opposing starter, Homer Bailey, could take his turn at the plate, too. Bailey delivered an RBI single, which ensured that by the time Cincinnati had batted around, it had more runs off Wainwright than the Cardinals' ace had given up in any of his previous 27 starts.
"It's a strange game," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "You don't hit one of the rookies [Joe Kelly on Tuesday]. Then today we hit one of the best pitchers in the game out there. There is no explanation for it. Our guys came out ready to hit. The main difference is we got some hits with runners in scoring position. We didn't leave any out there."
Wainwright never could regroup, either. Bruce's three-run blast stung him in the second and drove Matheny to pull his starter at the end of the frame. The Reds' aggressive approach -- six of the 16 batters Wainwright faced swung at his first pitch -- had given him fits.
"I think that was their approach coming out, and that's why we started throwing the cutter and the curveball pretty much right away," said Rob Johnson, who caught Wainwright for the first time. "He started getting the feel of that toward the second inning, but at that point, it was where it was already."
Wainwright's final stat line was littered with career-worst numbers, including most earned runs allowed (nine) and fewest innings pitched (two) in any of his 179 career starts. Never before had he been battered for six runs in the first inning.
He refused to use any outside factor as an excuse, either. Not the lack of familiarity with Johnson. Not the 128 pitches he threw in his last start. Not anything that went awry in his pregame warmup. In fact, Wainwright said he got loose in the bullpen quicker than usual before taking the mound.
"All you can say is they came out ready to play," Wainwright said. "I was focused, had a good plan, just didn't execute some pitches. The pitches I did execute, they found a hole. It was just a really bad night, a perfect storm."
"Tough night," added Matheny. "Everybody has them. Just get ready for the next one, that's all."
Wainwright's quick dismissal prompted Michael Wacha's early entrance, and Wacha's work in relief provided the highlight. Wacha tossed four scoreless innings on 65 pitches, throwing 45 of those for strikes. The seven strikeouts he notched established a career high for the rookie right-hander.
It was Wacha's sixth relief appearance and by far the longest.
"I was just trying to attack the hitters with a different mix," Wacha said. "[I was] just trying to get [a] first strike over and get in pitcher's counts, and it ended up working out pretty well for me."
Wacha's ability to carry the game into the seventh prevented Matheny from having to dig too deep into his 'pen. The implications of the extended outing, though, could reach further than the Cardinals would like. With Wacha expected to need at least a few days to recover, he will not be available when the club opens a key series in Pittsburgh on Friday.
Facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit, the Cardinals' offense made little noise against Bailey. The club had just three singles through five innings, at which point Matheny pulled four of his starting position players. Among those to sub in was Pete Kozma, who made his first Major League appearance in left field.
The change of positions couldn't help change his offensive fortunes, though. With an 0-for-2 night, Kozma now has just three hits in his last 50 at-bats.
The Cardinals, who didn't advance a runner to third until the ninth, finished hitless in five chances with runners in scoring position. Cincinnati, meanwhile, went 5-for-10 in those spots.
"I don't think we thought about how many games back we were, but we knew that we needed to win this game," Bailey said. "We can't come in here and get swept. Then you're really far back."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.